Picking up CLE credit is never as easy or fun as an evening with the justices of Division 6, which I and a few dozen other lawyers did last night at the courthouse for District 2, Division 6 in Ventura. The discussion was very informal, but there was still a lot to be learned — or in some cases, have confirmed.
Much of the evening was give-and-take. I tried to take detailed notes, but I can only write so fast. So, to avoid misquoting anyone, I’ll stick to paraphrasing and, for the most part, will not attribute comments to any particular person. My intent is not to deprive anyone of proper attribution, but to avoid mistakes. That said, here a few themes that dominated:
1. Don’t try the case in the Court of Appeal
Gee, you’ve never read that here before, have you?
Although I’ve heard justices say it before, it amazes me every time I hear it: the justices see a lawyer on virtually every calendar that treats oral argument as a second opportunity to try the case. Rather than concentrate on the applicable standard of review, the lawyer will argue the relative credibility of witnesses, try to impress with flowery language, or try to influence the justices with body language and demeanor. Such lawyers stick out like sore thumbs, and they are not doing their clients any favors. Even lawyers from big firms full of Ivy League graduates can make these mistakes. (Obviously, not every trial attorney in the court of appeal does this.)
2. The justices go out of their way to give everyone a fair shake.
The justices are very aware that each lawyer represents a real client, whether a corporation or a living, breathing person with hopes and interests that will be affected by their decision. You don’t need to bring your injured client to court for them to realize that there is a real injured person’s future at stake in a personal injury appeal.
“Pro Pers” — people representing themselves — pose a special challenge. In my experience, they usually do a very poor job and are often motivated to appeal for reasons so personal to them that it is impossible to detach themselves from the case and do a good job, even if they have a reasonable handle on the standard of review. It would be easy for the justices to lose patience with these folks, but the justices realize that everyone deserves their day in court and that the appellate process itself, no matter how it comes out, can give litigants a sense of closure and knowing they’ve done everything they can.
3. The justices love their jobs
Really, really, love their jobs. They made it sound like such a happy place to work for everyone — attorneys, clerks, you name it — that if thay had left job applications on a table for people to grab on the way out, I’m sure the supply would have been exhausted.
4. The future of electronics in the Court of Appeal
When I go to a hearing in trial court, I usually have all of the papers and the most important authorities loaded into my iPad. This not only greatly reduces the amount of stuff I’ve got to carry, it can also let me navigate from point to point far more quickly than flipping through a bunch of paper documents to double check an argument or find something in the papers that is contrary to what my opposing counsel is saying. (Normally, you don’t want to be flipping around everywhere during a hearing, whether it’s through paper pages or digital ones. With the right degree of preparedness, you shouldn’t have to. But unanticipated time arise when it is helpful to do so.)
Justice Coffee asked if we (the attorneys in the audience) felt the court was paranoid for not allowing laptops, etc. in the courtroom. While recording with such devices is a concern, and much of the judiciary at large remains strongly opposed to more use of electronics and electronic access to the courtroom, there seems to be general consensus (if I can rely on the nodding of heads last night) that more electronics in the courtroom is an inevitability, and that the bar, not the bench, will drive change in that direction.
5. Congratulations and good luck to retiring Justice Paul Coffee
Justice Coffee will be retiring soon (I believe on January 31), so some of the evening was spent reminiscing. His career took him from San Jose to some “cow counties” to Ventura. I didn’t know until last night that he lives on a boat. Made me jealous! Even though he will soon become a landlubber, I’ll still wish him the best wishes that I, as a “boat school” graduate, can offer: fair winds and following seas, Justice Coffee!